Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright on Smash(NBC)
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Sitting Shiva for Smash

The show’s demise is a blow for musical theater—the art that incorporates virtually every other form of art

Rachel Shukert
May 17, 2013
Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright on Smash(NBC)

This week was Shavuot, when the Jews received the Torah. But just as the good Lord giveth, so does he taketh away (is that in the Torah? Or is that a New Testament thing?). And this week was also one of loss so great, I fear I can hardly do justice to the resulting sense of emptiness in just once column, except to say it’s a comfort to know that on some level, humanity grieves together.

We’re all always sitting shiva for something or other—our youth, our illusions, the perfect sentence that flew out of our minds (never to return) when the person in front of us thrust his seat back, almost crushing our pelvis and breaking the screen on our laptop. (Yes, I’m on a plane right now, just like Thomas Friedman! If it crashes, this will be the last thing I ever write. Dynamism!)

Today, I’m sitting shiva for Smash.

I don’t mean to Mazeppa my own horn, but as some of you might know, I’m kind of a big macher in Smashworld. I write the recaps of NBC’s reluctantly beloved little Broadway-show that-couldn’t for New York magazine’s Vulture blog, and since the network officially announced its cancellation this weekend, I’ve been awash with tweets, emails, and IM’s from well-wishers wanting to know if I’m OK, if I’m sad, and didn’t I see it coming? The answer to all of these questions, of course, is yes. Yes, I’m fine, but yes, I’m sad, and as for the demise of a notoriously embattled show: Is it less sad when your terminally ill spouse dies than if they lived a full, happy life and were simply hit by lightning one day, but didn’t suffer? I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that what I’m mourning isn’t so much the end of Smash itself, but the Broadway-shaped hole in my—no, in all of our television screens.

If you tell me you don’t like musicals, I’ll tell you, as politely as I can, that you’re full of crap. Did you ever enjoy a Disney movie? It was a musical. Go to see Les Mis in the movie theater? Musical. Love South Park? Musical (and possibly a whole dissertation of its own). The Phantom of the Opera is a terrible piece of nonsensical ’80s bombast, but it’s also the highest-grossing entertainment property of all time. There is virtually no one in America today who hasn’t tried their turn in the chorus of their high-school production of Oklahoma, or gamely sung along with the parody lyrics Aunt Sharon wrote to “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” for Grandpa’s 80th birthday, or gleefully belted out “Matchmaker Matchmaker” that time they got really drunk at karaoke.

And the ubiquity isn’t just physical. It’s metaphysical—if that even makes sense. Musical theater is literally everything. It incorporates virtually every other form of art—visual, performing, literary—it’s giddily democratic yet fiendishly elitist and almost impossible to pull off. It canonizes the enthusiasm and joy of the amateur yet requires the cool head and technical expertise of the professional, professionals that Smash has attempted to bring into the limelight week after week. (Let me put it this way, Smash gave you Bernadette Peters as a recurring character. Glee gave you Gwyneth Paltrow. The defense rests.)

And it’s precisely that sense of difficulty that makes musical theater the greatest, and deepest, expression of American—and Jewish—popular culture. It’s incredibly difficult to make musical theater well, and given the veiled disdain for anything that seems girly and/or gay that still permeates much of mainstream entertainment, it’s difficult to convince people that they care about it. This inherent challenge—the herculean, often futile, always profoundly satisfying effort it takes to “put on a show”—gives musical theater as a construct the crucial layer of conflict that makes it so transporting. In its best moments, Smash realized it wasn’t just about the problems facing its fictional productions of Bombshell or Hit List; it was about the very real problems of making a real television show about them. Every actress who sings “Rose’s Turn” is, on some level singing about herself.

An indomitable character facing insurmountable odds: That’s the story of Gypsy and the story of every particular production of Gypsy. It’s the story of Exodus, and of the American Revolution. It’s the story of everything. And if another generation of audiences and producers decides that none of that matters because enough car companies didn’t buy ad time during Smash, well, that will be a loss even greater than that of Dr. Joyce Brothers, or Barbara Walters, or Angelina Jolie’s breasts. It’ll be a loss of a big piece of the Jewish, and American, soul. And then I’ll be pretty sad indeed.


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Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.